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WUWM's Teran Powell reports on race and ethnicity in southeastern Wisconsin.

Award-Winning Book 'Evicted' Comes To Life Through Traveling Exhibition

Philip Montgomery
With assistance from movers, residents and family members move their possessions to the sidewalk after being evicted by the Milwaukee County Sherriff for failure to pay rent.

Every year, there are thousands of evictions in Milwaukee County. A new exhibition based on the best-selling book Evicted brings the crisis to life.

The exhibition is in an event space called the Mobile Design Box on Milwaukee's near west side — minutes away from Marquette’s campus. When you walk through the doors, you're greeted by a bright yellow banner with the word "evicted" written across it.

Credit Teran Powell
As you open the front door to the Mobile Design Box, a huge banner sporting the word "evicted" atop dozens of eviction notices is plastered on the wall.

The exhibition is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Matthew Desmond, called Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.

Though it’s new to Milwaukee, the exhibition was featured at the National Building Museum in Washington D.C., for about a year. It was the brainchild of the museum’s curator, Sarah Leavitt. She says after reading Desmond’s book, she decided it was a story that needed to come to life.

READ: 'Evicted' Book Paints Heartbreaking Picture Of A Milwaukee Under Stress

“I felt like we needed to do an exhibition that related to housing insecurity, to people who didn’t have a home or a home they could count on,” Leavitt says.

The exhibition incorporates audio slideshows, photos, and infographics. And there are powerful displays – such as a vacuum sealed stack of personal belongings.

Credit Teran Powell
One piece of the "Evicted" exhibition shows a pile of personal belongings that elude to someone having been evicted.

There are also several areas that look like small houses that visitors can walk through. They offer a glimpse into different aspects of the eviction crisis, including from the perspective of tenants.

Another small house looks as if you’re sitting in housing court. You can pick up a speaker to hear audio from actual hearings. Photos from inside the courtroom transition on a screen.

When Desmond’s book was released three years ago, it featured the stories of eight Milwaukee families struggling with evictions. At the time, there were more than 10,000 evictions filed in Milwaukee County, according to the Eviction Lab, a project founded by Desmond.

Evictions have climbed since then, with more than 14,000 filings in 2017. The number was slightly lower in 2018, according to Milwaukee County Clerk of Courts records.

READ: Grant Aims To Help Milwaukee Bring Down Eviction Numbers

Leavitt, the exhibition’s creator, says she hopes people will think differently about the impact of evictions after seeing the show.

“I really want people to leave with a little more empathy for those people who experience chronic eviction, who are caught in the eviction crisis," she says. "I think that if it's not affecting you, it’s something you just might not think about. I want people to make sure that they understand what people are going through, and they understand why somebody might find themselves in housing court.”

Michael Keinitzis one of the photographers for the project. He says it was one of his tougher assignments — and he was a war photographer for 10 years. He says his wife even saw the toll it was taking.

“My wife came into where I was doing my editing and said, 'Gee, this seems to be taking a really heavy toll on you. Are you sure you want to keep doing it?' And I said, 'Yeah, it is a pretty heavy thing to be documenting. But this was very different because I could easily, with things falling through the cracks, see myself in that very same position,' " Keinitz explains.

"I really want people to leave with a little more empathy for those people who experience chronic eviction, who are caught in the eviction crisis." - Sarah Leavitt

Sally Ryan, another photographer, says working on the project helped her put things in perspective.

"It gives me a lot of perspective on, not just my life and other people's lives, but sort of the world as a whole. And to know that something's always better and something's always worse than the moment you're in right now. And even when you're photographing someone at a low moment, hopefully that's a low for them and things do get better," she explains.

The exhibition illustrates several reasons for the eviction crisis including stagnated incomes, rising rents, and government programs not filling the affordable housing gap.

Ramona Frye, NeBritt Herring, and Monica Hall went to the show together. They say they were overwhelmed by the information and found the experience eye-opening.

Frye says, “I'm also a landlord. I still haven’t got my rent this month, and people say so quickly, 'You should evict them.' But no, I’m not going to evict them ... This is somebody’s life, and you don’t want kids coming home and all their stuff is just sitting outside — I don’t know how I would feel as a child."

The three women say they’ll be thinking differently about the impact of evictions going forward.

The "Evicted" exhibition is showing at the Mobile Design Box through Sept. 30.

Editor's note: A portion of the audio is from Unfurl Productions.

Support for Race & Ethnicity reporting is provided by the Dohmen Company.

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Teran is WUWM's race & ethnicity reporter.
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